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Sid Meier’s Civilization VI Review | Hex-y thoughts

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI Review | Hex-y thoughts
Carl 'Malkaurai' Phillips

I absolutely friggin hate Queen Victoria.

Every time I see her damn English units appear from the fog of war I know trouble isn’t far away. It doesn’t matter if I treat her with respect or establish lucrative trades route. It doesn’t matter if I keep my distance, building new cities in the opposite direction. She always shows up on my doorstep with a bunch of units and declares war, looking snooty the entire time. I mean, she’s not quite as smug as Alexander was in Civ V (who was actually sat on his high horse) but she’s pretty damn close. But yes, Victoria inevitably gets all imperialistic, unhappy that she doesn’t own a spot in my region. My response is to go serve her a slice of humble pie, at which point barbarians are once again in my face or someone else starts kicking up a fuss about that city I just placed right next to their border for that iron resource because I MUST HAVE EVERYTHING.

This is a great example of how the new agendas system for leaders breathes life to Civilization VI, the latest instalment of the classic strategy series. It’s not just Victoria’s annoying aggression that you need to be wary of, though. Qin Shi Huang of China will cause you envious grief if you start going after wonders, Gilgamesh of Sumeria will start tutting if you leave but one barbarian skipping around, and God help you if Philip II of Spain hears but a whisper of another religion in your borders. These gameplay conditions mean you’re always on your toes regardless of which victory you’re aiming for, but thankfully you have all the tools to deal with them. This is because Civilization VI is one of the most accessible and aesthetically pleasing entries in the series so far.

But is it the perfect strategy game? Not quite, but it could be with some fine tuning.

As a returning Civ V player I was able to slip back into the action with relative ease despite the new additions and changes, but even newcomers should find Civ VI the most intuitive instalment yet. This is thanks to the clean and lean UI, ensuring that not only is immediately relevant information always at hand but access to more informative stats and graphs is just a click away. This is perhaps one of Civ VI’s best achievements – initial simplicity leading to intricate systems. It means aspects like city management, religion, and technology research don’t overwhelm the player with its various pieces of data.

Starting up games is an easy process too, with the simple options allowing fast setup of a game. The advanced options hold the usual tweaks like climate and world age, along with map size and landmass types. It’s here that I have my first critique – the lack of a Terra landmass type. I honestly miss the race for the New World, and while Fractal and Shuffle offer expected randomisation I certainly hope it’s added in at some point (preferably not as DLC… It’s going to be DLC, isn’t it? Ugh.)

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The different levels of tutorials also help in guiding players regardless of their experience, but I honestly found all aspects of the game the most intuitive the series has ever been. The tech tree remains the same bar a few progression changes, but it’s the new culture tree that really mixes things up. The introduction of government types and policy cards reminds me of Fate of the World: Tipping Point (a game I rated back in 2011) and offers plenty of flexibility in enhancing (or balancing out) a Civ’s strengths or weaknesses. There are restrictions on what types of cards you can play, but I found it helpful when needing to focus on military build up only to later switch to mercantile cards to replenish the coffers. I found the new system added a sense of advancement beyond that of the tech tree that previous civs never could deliver on.

While combat unit stacking is still a thing of the past, the new Corps and Armies / Fleets feature offers new tactical options as an alternative. The ability to combine similar units means that overcrowding the map in the late game can be avoided, but that’s not the only new combat change. Formations allow military units to pair up with non-combat units like workers or settlers, meaning players can protect key expansion plans as well as not need to move each everything individually. This also applies to the new Support Units such as the Battering Ram, which can turn a Swordsman into an effective city-sieging machine. Sure, you can do it the old fashioned way with catapults, but these new options add a welcome new tactical layer to battles.

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Another gameplay aspect that has been given a new twist is how cities are handled. Initial placement now requires a water source for growth (so no more random desert cities without a serious game plan) but that’s not the only thing to consider. The new Districts system, which Endless Legend players may find familiar, means that buildings are no longer piled into the main city tile. No only does it help visualise your cities growth in a much better fashion than previous Civ games, but it adds yet another strategic layer with adjacent bonuses. For instance, Science districts work best next to mountains and rainforests, while commercial districts get extra coin if there’s a river nearby. The end result creates a puzzle where players must think ahead when planning their city instead of just spamming mines and farms.

Speaking of which, Workers are dead. Long live Builders! I found the new limited-use unit successfully removes that feeling of surplus workers from previous games, making their every use more meaningful. It all balances out with the addition of districts which, when combined with world wonders (which also require their own hex tile), means space can be at a premium until a city’s borders have expanded far enough. I was often wondering whether another farm or mine would be a good idea, and these kind of decisions make Civ VI more in-depth in a good way.

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There are other changes that I think have improved the game for the better. For instance, I no longer hate City States. Having annoyed me to high heaven in Civ V, they now feel useful in Civ VI and the envoy system offers a simple taste of political favouring. Then there’s the barbarians – the bane of most player’s existence. I was told by a friend that the changes in Civ VI would break me, having been ruined by them in previous Civ games, but I honestly love the new system. Taking down barbarian scouts before they report to their base camp create a frustrating sense of urgency, and encourages players to not only wipe them out but bring civilised life to the rest of the world (eg. build more cities.)

Even the Espionage system is now fun to play. I especially like the “chase sequence” dialogue options that appear whenever a spy is discovered, giving the player a chance to recover their asset. However, if I had to name my favourite tweak to the Civ formula it would be what Firaxis refer to as Active Research. The short of it is that certain technology discoveries can be sped up just by doing things in-game. For example, killing an enemy with the Slinger unit will halve the time you need to discover Archery. I felt it gave each game a more reactive “learn by doing” feel, and meant that if war arrived on my doorstep I could (almost) adapt to the conflict on the fly.

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There has been some debate over the aesthetic design for Civ VI, but I found it a joy to look at. The art direction going in a more colourful (or cartoony vibe, as some have called it) makes every aspect visually appealing, but it’s the little details that really nail it. The way the waves crash on the coasts, and how district constructions visually build up with each turn. Even the map now looks like an actual map, with the fog of war now looking like cartography paper and the map edges featuring detailed borders. Meanwhile, the new day / night cycle also adds a sense of time to the game that previous instalments didn’t have (and you can turn it off if it proves too distracting.) Even the fantastic soundtrack evolves with your civ, updating musical themes to reflect entering new advancement eras.

Then you have the Civpedia quotes, narrated this time by the one and only Sean Bean. It’s yet another small detail, but having multiple quotes for each tech and civic helps alleviate repetition over several games. That, and some of the numerous quotes – ranging from notable historical figures to Courtney Cox and Terry Pratchett – are unexpectedly brilliant. However, what is probably my favourite small detail is how animals in combat units now run away when defeated. It’s the small touches like these that keep me enthralled, ensuring I’m suckered into doing one more turn. It also shows how much love and care Firaxis have put into the game’s development.

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So I’ve heaped praise upon everything so far, but here’s the thing – Civilization VI isn’t perfect, and its biggest problem is the perplexing AI. As I mentioned at the start of the review, I’m a big fan of how each leader works towards certain goals, but otherwise I felt their decisions were often at odds with their relationship status with others. For instance, leaders who were on good terms with me would suddenly denounce me, and in one case two civs went to war with me without any warning what-so-ever (I had even made an effort to play to their agendas, too.)

That would be bad enough, but when it comes to fighting it’s like I’m playing chess with a 4-year-old. Units will often move in curious ways – disengaging from invasions seemingly without reason – and when the AI does attack it often sends obsolete units instead of its better ones. It removed the tension from seeing huge armies marching towards my territory and meant that I could clean up opposing forces with some patience (the handful of ranged units also helped.) It’s such a shame because it means that the game only truly feels challenging in multiplayer.

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Speaking of which, I’m about to write something I could never have stated for previous Civilization games – the multiplayer works flawlessly. Gone are the days of port forwarding and other issues stopping others from getting into a lobby. My friends and I were able to set up and play a game with no issues, and I’ve only seen one instance of the game needing to re-sync. I’m also a big fan of the “Online” game speed, which halves the average game time needed to finish.

Anyway, back to the critiques. Another frustrating aspect is that moving units into the fog of war can cause them to fight anything at the target location. This is a huge change from previous Civ games and one I’m not a fan of. At all. Why players can’t turn units around to try and save them or even set them to Fortify is beyond me.

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So yes, Civilization VI isn’t perfect, but in my mind the flaws I’ve pointed out are balance issues that can be fixed. The AI can be patched to make sensible decisions. The blind fights moving into the fog of war can be turned tweaked in the code. The Terra-like maps can be brought in later down the line. If all these issues are addressed, it will make the accessible depth and sheer beauty of its aesthetics shine even brighter than they already do. Let’s hope Firaxis do, as it will turn one of the better Civ titles the series has produced into one of the greatest strategy games on the market.

Pros:

  • Fantastic aesthetics and clean, informative UI.
  • Accessible gameplay makes diving into the various mechanics much easier for newcomers.
  • The new agendas system really add unique personality to the each leader…

Cons:

  • … but the AI can do some utterly ridiculous things, especially when fighting.
  • Fighting undiscovered units when moving blind into the fog of war is ridiculous.
  • Bring back the Terra landmass type!

The Short Version:

Despite some odd AI behaviour issues, Firaxis have delivered one of the most enjoyable entries in the Civilization series to date. Beautiful presentation and accessible new gameplay mechanics mean Civilization VI will have you going one more turn for months to come.

DO-Review-Score-09
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Platform: PC

Developer: Firaxis Games

Publisher: 2K Games